God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
“I have been writing this book all my life,” Christopher Hitchens observes in God Is Not Great. He does not exaggerate. The book revisits ideas, issues and incidents he addresses in other works. His polemic is the culmination of a career spent arguing against weak-mindedness, which religious belief is by definition. Beyond being disputatious, however, Hitchens does offer an alternative to faith, something he has also advocated elsewhere: in a word, literature.
It should come as no surprise that he would return to episodes and concepts that have long concerned him as a journalist and essayist. If you’re going to argue that religion is not only “a menace to civilization” but also “a threat to human survival” and that “the true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee,” then it makes sense to discuss the infamous fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. This is especially true if the threatened novelist is a friend of yours, and, after he stayed at your apartment, the State Department called to inform that you might now be a target of revenge. Hitchens recounts Rushdie’s ordeal in God Is Not Great. He also writes about it in an essay included in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (2000) and in Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001).
Hitchens aims to debunk miracles; he previously exposed the falsehood of a particular one claimed in connection with a well-known religious figure. How, then, could he not take another look at material included in his earlier book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995)? The Vatican invited him to testify regarding the nun’s beatification, which makes it hard for him to avoid covering some of the same ground as he did in a 2001 piece included in Love, Poverty, and War (2004) and in Letters. The question of miracles has special importance for revealing the fraudulence of man-made religion because “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence” and “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” (Some might question his ability to assess evidence because of his support of the U.S. intervention in Iraq; he makes a point of focusing on the inflammatory role of religion in that region and elsewhere rather than taking up the topic of dubious intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction in God Is Not Great.) Believers reveal themselves to be unsatisfied with faith alone, or they wouldn’t look for signs of a god in the form of unexplainable events, which are in any case invariably explainable without the assumption of a supernatural being.
Yet if Hitchens has already taken on these issues, why do it yet again? Well, if you like to argue, and Hitchens famously does, there is no more pressing dispute. As he puts it: “The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature.” Hitchens sees the sort of credulity he associates with religious belief as unnecessarily constraining human potential. For him, religion represents an “attempt to assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and inquiring one.” He favors the sort of skeptical thinking that, using reason and the scientific method, has provided better explanations of “anything important” than any religion ever did. “To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”
Hitchens does devote space to celebration of scientific accomplishments, but literature exemplifies the sort of mental activity that he most highly prizes. He notes that atheists “are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe,” and cites his dedication to literature and other arts as evidence of this. He refers frequently to writers he admires, such as Salman Rushdie and P.G. Wodehouse. He contends that Shakespeare and Dostoevsky handle “the serious ethical dilemmas” better than do “the mythical morality tales of the holy books.” Comments like this pepper God Is Not Great and go to the core of Hitchens’ argument. The “Love” section in the book with that word in the title contains a selection of his writing on Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and others. What he loves, he believes, offers a more than adequate replacement for religion. In calling for a “new Enlightenment,” he says,s “the study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.”
Given his respect for science and his love for literature, it is fitting that he devotes God Is Not Great to another friend of his, Ian McEwan, a novelist with a deep interest in science. (Hitchens even quotes the same line from McEwan’s The Child in Time in God Is Not Great, in Letters to a Young Contrarian and in a 1994 review reprinted in Unacknowledged Legislation.) According to Hitchens, McEwan’s fiction “shows an extraordinary ability to elucidate the numinous without conceding anything to the supernatural.” In other words, Hitchens likes how he thinks.
ContributorJohn G. Rodwan Jr.
JOHN G. RODWAN, JR. lives in Brooklyn.